Do I want Jay Leno to have a show? No. I think his time has come and gone. When Gallagher talks about late night comedians as the manifestation of mediocrity, Leno is the poster boy (which makes me think, wonder what Gallagher has to say about all of this). But if Leno is known for anything, it’s being the nice guy, the non-threatening (save for the chin) host. Yes, perhaps he shouldn’t have taken the Jay Leno Show gig, just moved on to washing his cars and dropping by his Comedy and Magic Club, and let Conan take over The Tonight Show without his predecessor breathing up his neck. But, in the end, it was NBC who decided five years ago to lock in The Tonight Show transition. In the last year they look guilty of committing knee jerk reactions, but in this particular case it seems their mistake was planning too far ahead, being too cautious in trying to plan the next phase of The Tonight Show. Perhaps they were trying to avoid The Late Shift 2, and, instead, directly caused it. But they didn’t have to try to keep Jay in the fold. Ever the good NBC soldier, even with a few “good” years left in him, Leno wouldn’t have defected to another network. But NBC got greedy, tried to have its Conan and eat it too. Leno thought he was doing the right thing, and in his eyes, as someone who no doubt also idolized Johnny Carson, this was his chance to truly own his program, and move out form Carson’s shadow. If he knew then what a disaster it would turn out to be, and the repercussions it would have, I don’t think he would have taken the gig. He didn’t get where he is by ruffling feathers.
Which is why I almost feel bad for the guy as I watch him get bashed by Jimmy Kimmel and especially David Letterman. Dave is clearly, and with good reason, still bitter over losing to The Tonight Show to Leno, and makes his animosity towards his former and (possibly) future rival abundantly clear, repeatedly referring to him as Jay “Big Jaw” Leno.
So while Letterman’s personal vendetta against Leno is certainly understandable, it doesn’t seem entirely fair to excoriate him the way Letterman does. Certainly, Letterman, of all people, should understand the mistakes made by, in his words, “the geniuses in programming” (He also takes some unnecessary shots at Carson Daly, but, really, getting referenced by Letterman is the closest Daly is going to come to the 11:35 slot (piling on!)).
On a different but similar note, Letterman also lends credence to my outside shot theory that Conan will not go to Fox, but to CBS, saying that Conan “might come over here and take my job.” Of course, that was meant as a joke, but Letterman clearly holds an affinity for Conan, speaks of him with almost mentor-like admiration. He appreciates the way that Conan respected the Late Night legacy, and notes that he’s a nice, smart guy who’s kinda getting screwed. So maybe, just maybe, Conan takes over and Dave finally get his last laugh, his ultimate revenge on NBC.
(And while I maintain Letterman might have been a bit extreme in his castigation of Leno, his breezy, off-hand candor shows why he’s still the king. On Leno’s show Jay goes with some obvious jokes, Kimmel does a costume piece, Conan fires off some fierce barbs but refrains from seriously discussing the matter, so only Letterman has the gravitas, and well, the cache, to speak this openly and honestly about the late night quagmire. Yes, it’s easier for him to speak about it, as he’s not directly involved, but let’s not forget his fireside chats when he broke his own sex scandal. Whether Dave is at the center or not, he proves that he’s still the best at cutting through the dross, speaking from the heart and shooting from the hip (either because he cares the least or cares the most, I’m not sure.))
Which brings us to part 2 of this post: how Jay might screw all this up. As we noted above, no one attributes Leno’s rise to and success as Tonight Show host to his cutting edge humor or incisive interviews. No, it’s widely accepted that Jay told the most jokes that were accessible to the most number of people. Uncle Jay, affiliate friendly, plays nice with advertisers, simpatico with the suits.. His show was a good place for a laugh, a good spot for celebrities to shill their latest vehicle, a good show to fall asleep to. But if he’s known for anything, it’s about being the nice guy, the high fiver. Indeed, it bothers him that he has so many detractors when he tries to hard to be please everyone. He seems to respect and admire Letterman, but Dave holds on the hatchet, and yet we still think of Jay as the villain. And that’s fine. All this is a long way of saying that there has been a lot of talk about legacy and what does Jay want his to be? Successful Tonight Show host? Ringmaster of The Jay Leno Show disaster? Or two-time Tonight Show host and architect of Conan O’Brien’s exile. If Jay is concerned about his reputation, then perhaps he won’t take back his old gig, instead let Conan hold onto it. Indeed, Popeater has already reported that Leno is thinking about exactly this. If Jay Leno is the stand up guy that he has always purported to be, then maybe his conscience will tell him to call it a day and ride off into the sunset on one of his many motorcycles.
And then we’ll hate him even more.
Tuned In: Jay Leno, Martyr